“As the snow falls heavy on the city streets, Madam Kim trudges on through the sub-zero weather that has most others huddled indoors, going through her daily routine of gleaning alleyways for waste paper and other recyclable trash.
Severely hunched over, the 81-year-old does this for a living. On a typical day, she circles the city a few times on foot, gathering more than 100 kilogrammes of trash which she takes to a junk depot that buys it for 100 won per kilogramme.
That’s barely 10,000 won, or roughly S$12, for a day’s heavy haul.
It’s a measly sum to live off in one of the most developed and expensive cities in Asia. But for about 3 million seniors in South Korea who live in poverty, this is how they will live out the final leg of their lives.
“I work because I need to buy medication and I need to buy food. If I get too hungry, I get full by drinking water and eating a cheap meal. Then I continue working,” says Mdm Kim, who might spend 2,000 won (S$2.40) on a simple bowl of rice and soup.
In South Korea, almost half of its elderly population over the age of 65 live in poverty, according to a 2016 OECD economic survey. About a quarter live alone. Many grapple with living in isolation and depression.
While elderly people make up 13 per cent of the population today, this figure is expected to hit 40 per cent by 2060 – and critics say that if the problem of elderly poverty continues to be neglected, it could have catastrophic effects on the country’s economy and the welfare of its citizens.
How did a generation, responsible for turning South Korea into one of the region’s strongest economies, end up so poor?
A GENERATION’S SACRIFICE
South Korea’s comeback from crises like the Japanese Occupation, the Korean War, and the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, to the technology powerhouse that it is today, has been dubbed an economic miracle.
Professor Lee Ho-Sun from the Korea Soongsil Cyber University in Seoul, who has studied the welfare of the elderly poor for years, said the nation’s prosperity is the “fruit of hardworking people” now in their senior years.
And these seniors have not stopped working – it’s common to see grey-haired men as security guards, elderly female cleaners, and fragile-looking trash collectors working around the buildings of metropolitan Seoul.
It’s the fate of a “forgotten generation” – those born too early into an era of hardship, yet too late to reap the economic benefits that came after.
“All their sweat and blood went into making this country, and they’re living miserably in their old age now. They’re the victims of tough times,” she told the investigative documentary Get Rea!.
Most of this generation were in their working prime when the 1997 financial crisis struck, putting an estimated 2 million people out of work. Many also fell victim to rife age discrimination in Korea’s corporate culture, forced into early retirement when they were replaced by younger, cheaper workers.
The basic old-age pension only came into place in the late 1980s. With an allowance of 200,000 won a month (about S$250), and criteria that disqualifies those with children, critics say that attempts to build a social safety net for the pioneer generation are too little, too late.
In a country where the average lifespan is over 80 years, many seniors are forced to find means of supporting themselves. In extreme cases, some elderly women have even resorted to prostitution (see this earlier story on granny prostitutes).
Said Prof Ho: “The elderly Koreans have the value of performing duties for their country, and they never expect that the country should do something for them. So they just swallow their difficulties, but it’s like swallowing poison.”